We knew it. Demelza knew it. You could hear the corsets creak as erotic tension built between Ross Poldark and his first true love, Elizabeth. Yet controversy swirled like Cornish mist around their long-anticipated encounter in Sunday night’s episode of Poldark.
The BBC drama, adapted from Winston Graham’s bestselling novels, first excited speculation when leading man, Aidan Turner, before the series began, revealed that a scene portrayed as rape in the BBC’s original 1970s series had been reconfigured as consensual sex.
Writer Debbie Horsfield has never felt pressure to “live up to” the 1970s TV version of Poldark. “We’ve always been very clear that we’re doing a new adaptation,” she points out. “It’s not a remake.”
The rape scene in Sunday’s episode, she goes on, wasn’t “axed” because it was never written in the first place. Much less was it removed at the request of the actors. “To be absolutely clear,” says Horsfield, “the script never changed from the moment I wrote it, to how it was shot.”
For Horsfield, however, the positioning of Ross and Elizabeth as consensual lovers had more to do with fidelity, not just to character but to the spirit of Winston Graham’s original Poldark novels. In truth, the scene shown on Sunday bears little resemblance to one written by Graham in Warleggan, the third book in the Poldark series.
In the 1953 text, Elizabeth accuses Ross of treating her “like a slut”, to which our hero replies, “It is time you were so treated.” Her protest (“Ross, you can’t intend…Stop! Stop, I tell you”) is ignored, and she’s carried to bed.
“It’s interesting that people are getting outraged about the ‘dot…dot…dot’ moment, because what happens next isn’t actually described,” says Horsfield.
“It’s up to the individual reader to decide what the dots mean in that moment. There is a degree of ambiguity if you just read that chapter, though it is clear, subsequently, that when Elizabeth remembers the incident, she thinks of Ross’s ‘caresses’ and talks about not wanting to go from one man’s caresses to another’s.
“Obviously, I had my own interpretation, but we wanted to make sure of the author’s intention. Winston Graham died in 2003, but fortunately we were able to ask his son, Andrew, who discussed the novels with his father while he was still alive, and it was pretty clear, from our point of view, how the scene should be written.”
In a public statement, Andrew Graham came down heavily on the side of requited passion. “The only way to judge what my father intended,” he said, “is to read the novels as a whole. Doing so, it becomes clear from earlier scenes, as well as from Elizabeth’s immediate reactions and later mixed emotions, that what finally happened was consensual sex, borne of long-term love and longing.”
While it’s entirely possible that the Graham estate has as large an interest in maintaining Poldark’s popularity as the TV production company, Horsfield is convinced that the narrative dots were deeply considered. “The truth is there are incidents in the Poldark novels where a rape occurs, and Winston Graham is perfectly explicit about it. There’s no doubt that when a rape occurs, he calls it a rape.”
Will these scenes also be presented as the author intended? “Well, it won’t occur in series two,” says Horsfield. “I can’t really say more because it involves characters we haven’t met yet.”
In September, Heida Reed, who plays Elizabeth, was quoted in the press, commenting on this scene, but Horsfield says, “The actors don’t have any input into the script. Of course, in rehearsal actors are able to give their own interpretation of a scene and we discuss how the scene should be interpreted – that’s just the norm, but it was clear to me that remarks made by Heida Reed about the rehearsal process were taken out of context. They were taken to mean that she had dictated what was written and that was never the case.”
She is equally clear that Aidan Turner’s standing with fans had no bearing on her decisions; if anyone’s reputation was being protected, it was Ross Poldark’s. “Although he is hot-headed and reckless – in the books and as depicted on screen – Ross is fundamentally a man of honour, a rebel who stands up for the underdog. How likely is it that he would commit a crime against a woman, a woman he has loved for ten years? It would fly in the face of everything we know about him.”
That said, Horsfield is aware that not all Poldark’s passions go down well with fans.
“He is by no means a spotless character – and I don’t mean that he has characteristics which are unappealing but we love them anyway – he has genuinely unappealing characteristics, and some of them have come more to the fore in this second series; it would be handy, for example, if instead of rushing about fighting for the common man, he paid his wife a bit of attention. Some viewers have said they’re disappointed in some of the things Ross does; for me it’s the fact that he isn’t heroic that makes him an authentic character.
“There’s a broader discussion to be had about what was deemed acceptable and desirable in the 1940s, when these books were first written. I’m not saying rape has ever been acceptable. I am saying, however, that if you remember the famous scene in Gone with the Wind where Rhett carries Scarlett upstairs, it’s clear we’re supposed to feel that was thrilling and exciting. And it’s absurd that marital rape was only made illegal in 1991. We’ve come a long way.”
The Poldark plotline comes at a time when sexual violence against women is, properly, the focus of public debate. Blurred lines around sexual consent figure prominently in pop culture, while an increasingly pervasive porn culture supports an assumption that “no” is a preamble to “yes”.
“Consent workshops” are now a routine feature of Freshers’ Week in universities and just last week the actress Doon Mackichan spoke out against TV drama that presents brutalised women as “entertainment fodder”.
Bonnet-and-britches drama is not easily confused with documentary. Nor is Poldark is the first classic to be toned down for the screen. (It’s unlikely Oliver! the musical would have made the cut if Nancy had stayed, as written by Dickens, an abused child prostitute.)
It remains to be seen what subsequent series of Poldark will bring. For now, one fewer rape served up with the Sunday-night snacks must surely be counted a win.
Poldark continues Sundays, 9pm BBC1